Conflict Resolution Conference at Howard University
Remarks by Amb. Odeen Ishmael

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me first of all congratulate both Clark Atlanta University and the University of Guyana and the organizers for putting together this forum to generate and discuss ideas on conflict analysis and conflict resolution in Guyana. I must also extend thanks to Howard University for providing this wonderful venue, the Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center, for the holding of this forum. I am particularly pleased that the Guyanese Diaspora is involved in this exercise, for surely they have a deep interest in helping to solve the problems we have at home. The representatives of the Diaspora who will make presentations today will certainly draw from their own experience in both the United States and in Guyana and make valuable proposals to assist in solving some of the problems of political and ethnic conflict at home.

Guyanese living abroad generally these days follow very closely the political, economic and social situation at home. Over the past year many have become awakened by the drastic rise in incidents of violent crime. Violent attacks on persons, including law enforcement personnel, have received much publicity, and many ideas ranging from the constructive to the ludicrous have been presented with an aim of bringing about an end to such activities.

So very often, it is easy to say that the root cause of conflict in Guyana is race, or politics, or a combination of both. What many also see as the politicizing of crime in recent years has added a new dimension to the situation.

The issue of resistance to the democratic process is also important. As all are aware, the current conflict situation involving ethnic tension between Africans and Indians and escalating crime is not restricted to the period of the past year. At the conclusion of every election since 1992, we saw outbreak of violence by some persons who refused to accept the results. Protest marches arranged by opposition parties saw unruly and unlawful acts committed in the very presence of those who organized and led the so-called protest marches. Criminal elements in these protests committed unlawful acts and were protected by the crowd with whom they marched.

We often hear the time-worn statement that it is the political parties that have brought about and encouraged race divisions. While we may argue that this is so, we also have to consider if that is the total truth.

In examining our history, we will find that race divisions and race conflicts have always existed. The pre-emancipation period saw the exploitation and brutalization of Africans by European slave owners who introduced the methodology of divide-and-rule by employing Amerindians to hunt down runaway slaves. As a matter of fact, Amerindians were the first slaves of the European settlers in Guyana. Resistance and fights for freedom by African slaves were suppressed by brute force. At that time, in the minds of the slave owners, brute force was their method of conflict resolution.

In the post-emancipation period, the introduction of Indians was regarded as a threat to freed Africans. This was because the Africans initially regarded Indians as a threat to their bargaining power to obtain increases in wages for work on the sugar plantations. Despite this, there were no significant cases of conflict between Africans and Indians. In fact, when Indian protests were suppressed, sometimes by deadly bullets, African workers gave testimony in support of the Indians to the investigating commissions.

The serious ethnic tension in the nineteenth century occurred between Africans and Portuguese, resulting in the Angel Gabriel riots in 1856 and the Cent Bread riots in 1889 when Portuguese business places were attacked. Firm action by the police and the magistrates ensured that those who caused the riots were severely punished. Portuguese shopkeepers whose properties were looted or destroyed were compensated by the Government.

Labor disputes in 1905-1906 turned into riots and racial attacks on Europeans when criminal elements joined up with striking African waterfront workers. The riots were eventually suppressed but in the process some of the rioters were shot dead. Firm police action was taken against those who committed crimes.

I mention these examples to show that there were instances of ethnic conflict but they were contained by what some could regard as the solid maintenance of law and order, but which others would describe as the application of repressive force. At the same time, it must be noted that in instances of conflict, they were not widespread, and the majorities were not involved. For example, in the case of African-Portuguese conflict, only a small minority of Africans was involved and not all Portuguese were attacked. Most Africans deplored the acts of riotous behavior and there were many examples of Africans coming to the defense of the Portuguese. In instances of conflict between Africans and Indians in the 1960s, a similar situation was evident, even though the ethnic tension and suspicion was generally widespread. The same situation exists today.

But there have been many instances of close cooperation between the two main ethnic groups. Of interest to note that during the strikes in 1917 in Georgetown, non-indentured Indian workers on sugar estates near to Georgetown went on solidarity strikes. This pattern also could be seen in the 1930s. We saw such solidarity in the 1940s and also in the early 1950s when political cooperation and unity was strong. More recently, relatively speaking, we saw patterns of cooperation in the 1970s and 1980s when Indian sugar workers gave practical solidarity and support to African bauxite workers who went on strike.

It is possible that up to the 1940s, Africans did not see Indians as a threat. But apparently the situation was changing. The Waddington Commission of 1951 stated: "Indian aloofness has now given place to a realization of their permanent place in Guianese life and to a demand for equal participation in it. This claim, reinforced by their growing literacy, leads them to compete for positions which they have not hitherto sought.”

The Robertson Commission of 1954 which whitewashed the British suspension of the constitution the year before stated: “We agree with this description by the Waddington Commission, and confirm from our experience that the Indian element in the population has now shaken off its previous lethargy and is beginning to play a major part in the life of the Colony. Education is now eagerly sought by Indian parents for their children; many Indians have important shares in the economic and commercial life of the Colony; the rice trade is largely in their hands from production to marketing. Their very success in these spheres has begun to awaken the fears of the African section of the population . . . .”

The Robertson Commission stated that even at that time, there was a tendency for racial tension to increase. It reached the conclusion that the amity with which people of all races lived side by side in the villages existed more in the past. The Commission said: “[T]oday the relationships are strained; they present an outward appearance which masks feelings of suspicion and distrust.”

It is, therefore, clear from this account that racial distrust and conflict is not a recent phenomenon.
Most adult Guyanese are fully aware of the conflict situations that occurred in the 1960s, and the resulting escalation of race divisions. This problem has now transcended into another generation. But the conflict of the 1960s was stage managed by the Americans and British in their efforts, with their local supporters, to destabilize the democratically elected Government. The US State Department’s declassified documents on Guyana, released in 1996, set out very clearly how this was done, and the ethnic divisions perpetrated by that process continue to plague us to this day.

The participants at today’s forum will in good faith present ideas to resolve the current conflict situation. I am sure that some of the ideas will be controversial – some may even face bitter opposition – but it is important that we all listen civilly to each other and argue without engendering any conflict situation. We need similar kinds of discussions on an on-going basis in Guyana, at all levels of our society and geographical areas, and involving politicians, academics, members of civil society, women and youths.

At the same time serious urgent work must be carried out to build a strong and responsible police and judicial system which will go a long way in the maintenance of the rule of law.

Today, we are having what is seen as an academic exercise. But the results of an academic exercise can be applied in practice also. The Diaspora, by presenting ideas for conflict resolution, must also lead by example. Here in the United States there is a plethora of Guyanese community organizations. However, I hasten to add that many draw most of their membership from just a single ethnic group, and when they hold activities, the attendance is reflective of this. This may not be deliberate, but they must make efforts to do a greater reaching out to bridge the ethnic divide in order to generate understanding and cooperation. Despite the ethnic problems which we may have in Guyana, I personally feel that social functions in Guyana attract a wider cross section of people of all ethnic groups than social functions organized by many Guyana community groups in the United States. The Guyanese Diaspora will therefore have to work together to help bridge the divide which exists right here, and thus will portray itself as a role model for citizens in Guyana to emulate.

But certainly, the way forward in Guyana is for our leaders, political parties and other social and cultural organizations to have dialogue. Refusing to have dialogue with people you have to live with will never solve existing problems and will never result in conflict resolution. Refusal to have dialogue perpetuates the problem and breeds more conflict situation.

There are always the extremists who claim that for a political leader of party to dialogue with its opponents is to express political weakness. But not wanting to dialogue is political cowardice. To hold political discussions with your political opponents to decide on the way forward for your nation is a form of great political strength and utmost political leadership.

Let us look forward to a day of constructive discussions. The results can clearly work to the benefit of our people and our country.